Why work-related stress is getting critical. And what to do about it

Work-related stress is on the increase, but how do you strike a balance between prevention and paternalism? In this ‘how to’ style piece, Carl Laidler, Director of Wellbeing at Health Shield, focuses on how OH, Risk and HR can better work together.

Work-related stress is on the increase and it’s only going to get worse as the economic crisis deepens and employees go in and out of lockdown, according to Employment Lawyer Vanessa Latham, who expects to see work-related stress claims related to redundancies and burnout increase. This brings with it potentially high costs to business, both financially and reputationally speaking. The time is ripe for a more proactive approach, especially considering the pandemic has made leaders focus squarely on employee wellbeing as the key to business recovery. So, what should businesses be doing now? And what nationwide solutions are being mooted for the not-too-distant future?

It’s telling that nearly half of employees (47.6%) say their employer hasn’t asked about their health and happiness since the initial lockdown, according to a recent social poll of over 3,000 individuals by Health Shield. Clearly, proactivity needs a helping hand. And quickly, considering the current landscape.

Vanessa Latham, Employment Partner at BLM Law, speaking as part of a recent webinar, reports seeing an increase in Employment Tribunal and Personal Injury claims related to work-related stress over recent months. Such claims come with high costs attached: anything from £1k to £100k or more. But, of course, the financial cost could pale into insignificance in comparison to the reputational cost once word gets out (and it will) that work-related stress is a problem in your company.

Added to this is the issue of burnout, says Vanessa, which results from chronic work-related stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. New research shows that online searches for the term “burnout symptoms” have increased by 24% this year. This is leading to predictions of a January 2021 “burnout spike”.

Burnout was added to the World Health Organisation (WHO) international classification of diseases (ICD) last year. Although not a medical condition as such – right now at least – claimants could argue that the signs of burnout were obvious to the employer, thereby triggering an obligation on the employer to prevent injury occurring.

Its classification might soon change though.

Vanessa adds: “It [burnout] has not hitherto been formally recognised as a condition in its own right, as opposed to an aspect of others, but I understand there is now a suggestion that the WHO classification of mental health diseases contained in ICD 10 is due to be replaced in January 2022 by ICD 11, which does introduce “burnout” as a separate classification.”

Burnout, stress and being human

Underlying drivers

When you consider the year so far, the mounting problem is clear to see.

Latest labour market statistics show that the annual increase in redundancies reported in the quarter July to August represented the largest increase for over a decade (April to June 2009). At the same time, the pool of available jobs is shrinking. Job vacancies are below the pre COVID-19 pandemic levels and 40.5% less than a year ago.

For those lucky enough to be still in work, seven in 10 say that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their overall wellbeing. In separate research, the same ratio of employee respondents (seven in 10) say the loneliness they experienced during the last lockdown was having a negative effect on wellbeing and productivity.

 It was also recently reported that 20% of adults are suffering from some kind of depression. That’s doubled from 10% since before the pandemic.

The impact of the latest lockdown could further compound all of these problems.

All in all, it’s a pretty bleak picture. And this is just the psychological impact. The physical impact of COVID-19 itself, not to mention countless other conditions that are going undiagnosed and untreated, is also taking its toll.

From reactive to proactive

So, what can employers realistically do to help tackle work-related stress, especially when workers are now so remote – literally speaking.

Current Health & Safety Executive guidelines make clear that if an employee tells you about a mental health related issue, or you’ve noticed a problem – generally indicated by a change in behaviour – there’s a responsibility on you to do something about it. This involves discussing solutions with the employee to help prevent the situation getting worse. Everything must be documented, actioned and regularly reviewed.

The problem with the above approach is that it is very reactive. Employers are now being encouraged to be much more proactive in their approach, nurturing a culture of openness and self-care to help prevent problems occurring in the first place.

That’s all well and good but there’s no ‘out of the box’ one-size-fits-all solution to this, which probably explains why many employers are struggling to get on top of it.

All-employer solutions in the pipeline

One of the main barriers to progress at the moment is a lack of joined up thinking across Occupational Health (OH), Health & Safety, Human Resources (HR), Risk Managers and Line Managers. There are currently a number of solutions being mooted – the key one from a UK government perspective revolving around OH.

Right now, the government seems to view OH access as the primary answer to sickness absence issues in the UK. A Green Paper is expected to be published jointly before the end of this year by the Department for Work & Pensions and the Department for Health & Social Care in response to the consultation Health is everyone’s business: proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss (July 2019).

This consultation set out proposals to encourage all employers to take positive action to support employees who are managing health conditions in work, and to manage sickness absence more effectively.

Insurance industry respondents to this consultation, however, said the approach was too siloed. In fact, industry body GRiD formed a new public policy committee in response to the consultation to help positively influence policy making.

They said it failed to look at ways in which an employer’s existing employee benefits and services could be better used to help in a preventative context – things like group income protection, private medical insurance, health cash plans and wellbeing platforms: all of which include valuable services, from virtual GPs, physio triage and diagnostics to counselling support and health screening. Some also already offer access to OH support.

In overlooking this vast area, the consultation failed to consider the integrated and cost-effective care pathway approach that employers require, according to GRiD.

Your business: right here, right now

So, where does all of this leave us? What we do know for sure is that one-size-fits-all rarely brings results when it comes to the wellbeing of people.

Proactivity via a culture of openness and self-care is paramount. And this is something that employers of all shapes and sizes could be focusing on right now.

Business recovery rests on the health, happiness and motivation of your people and it simply cannot be left to chance, or to statutory guidance alone.

How to nurture a culture of self-care: top tips

  • Get to know your people. It’s only by gaining employee insights, through various means from surveys, absence and employee benefit claims statistics to Glassdoor reviews, that you can begin to think about tweaking – or kickstarting – a fit for purpose wellbeing programme.
  • Join up your existing wellbeing benefits, services & initiatives. Chances are you’re doing a lot already and probably have access via products like group risk and health cash plans to a whole host of wellbeing services, maybe even OH resource. Work with your providers to ensure these are structured in a way that supports immediate-use care pathways. Also link all of this to other relevant HR policies, practices and initiatives you might already have in place such as mental health first aiders and wellbeing networks.
  • Communicate in a way that is insight-led and purpose driven. Gone are the days of ‘throwing mud at the wall’ style communication. If you want your employees to rationally understand the support and services you have in place (and they need to, otherwise they won’t use them) and the way in which the programme supports the company’s purpose, you need to communicate in a way that is much more structured and targeted. Use employee insights and think like a consumer marketeer.